Offering equal measures of thoughtful and contradictory commentary, a Wednesday night panel called “Will Amazon Lead Us to the Golden Age of Books?,” at the New America Foundation in New York City, gave an encompassing picture of the publishing industry’s conflicted--perhaps even tortured--responses to Amazon, and its business tactics.
Moderated by NewYorker.com editor Nick Thompson, the panel featured author and self-publishing spokesperson Hugh Howey, along with a book retailer, a media reporter/self-publisher and a legacy publisher.
Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo, speaking of Amazon, said “I don’t know what impact Amazon has had on my store.” This comment came, though, after McNally criticized the retailer and vowed to never to shop there. Her store is celebrating its 10th anniversary with plans to open another location. Despite her feelings about Amazon, McNally acknowledged that when she opened her store, “B&N had already crippled indie bookstores.”
Asked by Thompson why publishers fear Amazon, Manoush Zomorodi, host of NPR’s New Tech City (and an author who self-published a book via Amazon), said “people are torn over Amazon.” She emphasized that “publishers are right to fear Amazon." The she said: "But who cares? This is all great for journalists!”
And, despite her own animosity towards Amazon, McNally acknowledged something other indie bookstore owners have also conceded: “I don’t compete with Amazon. People buy as many books as they think they need. Because of the nature of the book business, it’s not a zero sum game.”
Howey, a tireless supporter of Amazon and a former bookseller for B&N (who is also now considering opening an indie bookstore in his community), said it's not surprising that so many people who work in book publishing express animosity towards Amazon. "Publishers have always hated their biggest account," Howey noted. "They hated B&N when I worked there.”
Challenging the notion that Amazon is “crushing” indie bookstores, Howey cited an “8% growth” in the number of indie stores in recent years, and reminded the audience that “all retailers have been hurt by online retailers" but that that "the big book chains seem to be closing fastest.”
When the question of whether e-books were hurting the book business surfaced, Howey said, emphatically, that they are not. He cited the “75% margins on e-books,” publishers get, as opposed to the “40% margins” on print. Later, Howey used these same figures to chide traditional publishing for not paying writers better royalties on e-books.
With all the back-and-forth, getting the panelists to offer a unified take on the contemporary state of publishing was tricky. Howey, though, felt the panel's title was appropriate. “Right now is a golden age," he said. "Publishing has never been better.”